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Tracking With Dustin
—GCH CT MACH Sagebrush Little Big Man HSAs MXS MJS JHD VCX—

by Alicia M Keegan


Tracking is not Dustin’s favorite activity.

First, it must be admitted that tracking is not Dustin’s favorite activity. He’d prefer to be doing something more fast paced and exciting, like agility or herding. Still, he’s a very competent tracker, it’s just a matter of convincing him to put his mind to it. Dustin has always been a very high energy dog. He’s out to have a good time–and from his viewpoint anything we do together should be a good time. Pleasing me is a secondary consideration. At the same time, he is a very affectionate dog, always ready for a good cuddle. He’s a fast learner, challenging to train, but a lot of fun to work with.


THE MAKING OF A TRACKING DOG


He let me know that he really didn’t like Stuff in his face.

I first started tracking with Dustin in northern California in about 2008 or 2009. He learned quickly, but pretty early in the game, he let me know that he really didn’t like Stuff in his face. That sometimes posed a problem, as Shelties are fairly small dogs, and tall grass and weeds are a tracking fact of life. But we continued to work, and in March 2010 he passed his certification track. (A letter from a tracking judge, certifying that the dog is ready to enter a tracking test, is required before a novice dog can enter a test.)

Unfortunately, that spring there were many more Tracking Test entries than there were spaces for dogs to run. Dustin got into only one test. He started with his usual enthusiasm, plowed through the three foot grass for most of the track, worked out four turns, then got a few yards off the track some sixty yards from the end glove. He searched for the track, but when he couldn’t find it easily, he turned to me with a look on his face that clearly said, “Ok, we’ve done enough, there’s too much Stuff between me and the track, it’s a beautiful day, so let’s go do something else.” Sigh. . . . I couldn’t get him to re-start, so he failed the test after completing all the hard parts.

His certification, which is only good for one year, was about to expire.


Dustin casts for the scent in the rain.

We continued training that fall, and were ready to enter tests the following spring. The only problem was that his certification, which is only good for one year, was about to expire. So we had to hunt down a judge to lay another certification track for him. The grass was high, he had trouble on the last leg of the track, but he got the job done.

With his new certification in hand, I entered him in the Sacramento Dog Training Club test on March 20, 2011. Dustin had been breeding a bitch the week before, and I didn’t know how focused he would be. It was windy and rainy on test day, but the grass was pretty short. Dustin drew the fourth track, and he wandered all over the first leg of the track in the wind. But after he worked out the first turn, he stayed fairly close to where the tracklayer had walked. He made an excursion down to a temporary pond at the third turn, worked downwind of the track on the fourth leg, neatly executed the last turn, and had no trouble finding the glove at the end of the sixth leg. We celebrated in the rain, then made a run for the cars.

Dustin celebrates his succesful TD track with judges and tracklayer.

Map of Dustin's TD track, March 20, 2011.


ADVANCED TRAINING


Life, in the form of a cross country move, interrupted all the training for all the dogs.

The following year, life, in the form of a cross-country move, interrupted all the training for all the dogs. Then followed a year of getting settled and oriented to dog activities in a new state. Dustin and I returned to herding, and we focused on earning his MACH in agility, which he accomplished in October 2013.

Then we returned to some serious tracking. I joined a tracking partner who was training her Rottweiler for TDX work. Dustin was an indifferent field tracker. The older the scent got, the farther he tended to wander from the actual track. Food drops pulled him back in, but only temporarily. My partner’s dog passed her TDX in the spring, and I couldn’t even think of entering Dustin in a test.

We switched from field tracking to hard surface tracking, and that was right up his alley


Dustin practices tracking across a parking lot.
A metal article that he will find shortly lies about three feet to the right of his nose.

But as spring matured into summer, we switched from field tracking to hard surface tracking, and he decided that was right up his alley. No tall grass, no bushes getting in the way, nothing but pure scent that he could follow without Stuff getting in his face. When the wind blew him off the track, he could get back to it without plowing through Stuff. This was his kind of tracking!

He soon handled three and four hour tracks without too much problem. We lengthened the tracks and he handled them well. I began to think about entering him in some tests. Then he encountered a Loud Scary Skateboard. This was the first time in his life that my unbelievably self-confident dog ever told me he was afraid of something. Skateboards, it seems, were too threatening for him to handle. We had to stop working at that site for a few months. But he continued to track well at other locations, handling parking lots, sidewalks, buildings and people without many problems.


THE VST TESTS


I entered Dustin in three VST tests the fall of 2015.

I entered Dustin in three VST tests the fall of 2015. At the first test, he started off downhill from the actual track. When he ran out of scent and tried to work his way back to the track, he came up the incline to face a glass-sided building. There he totally lost his brains—and his desire to track—when he saw his reflection and what he perceived to be a strange dog. Oh well, I’d always wanted to drive to the Kansas City area anyhow. At the second test, only an hour from home, the required non-vegetated Moment Of Truth turn was on a fairly narrow stretch of asphalt. Dustin chose to work on the adjacent grass, and failed for not working the non-vegetated turn. But he was hot on the scent, and he finished the rest of the track without any problem.

I’d been told he might have trouble in Albuquerque,
since he’d had no opportunity to practice in a desert climate.


Map of Dustin's successful VST track, Albuquerque NM, November 29, 2015.

Our third test was in the hot dry climate of Albuquerque on November 29, 2015, a ten hour drive from home. I’d been told he might have trouble there, since he had no opportunity to practice in a desert climate. We had no problem getting there, and on the test morning, he drew the first track of the day. He started very well, made the first turn, the only one on grass, with no problem, and found the first article, a metal switch plate, in a narrow corridor between two buildings. Then he came out facing an open area ahead, and a parking lot to the right. After a bit of investigation, Dustin chose to head across the parking lot. At the end of the parking lot, he took quite a bit of time before deciding the track turned between two buildings to the second article. Then he continued on until he faced another problem. The track went left through a pedestrian underpass, and came out into a walled eating area. Dustin had never worked an underpass, and it took quite a while for him to figure it out.

“She can’t fail him for not making a non-vegetated turn, because all the turns are non-vegetated”

One of the judges in Albuquerque had also judged him on his second test. I thought, “Well, she can’t fail him for not making a non-vegetated turn, because all the turns here are non-vegetated.” Once Dustin came through the underpass, he had no trouble working across the walled area, and exiting into a large, mostly concrete open area. He made a right turn without hesitation, and headed across the area and down a short broad flight of stairs. Unknown to me, he was nearly at the end of his track.

But once down the stairs, he ran into trouble. I thought he was searching for another turn. He had really scented the piece of leather at the end of the track, but was having trouble locating it. The stairs opened onto a courtyard. Dustin spent at least twenty minutes searching the courtyard, and every exit from it. The observers held their collective breaths when he investigated the route where the tracklayer had exited the courtyard. But Dustin decided the article wasn’t there, and went back to search some more.

The first breed champion Sheltie to pass a VST test!

Finally, he worked his way back to the stairs, and after greeting the judges, he moved forward, and caught the scent of the article half-hidden in dead leaves only a few yards from the base of the stairs. He excitedly pounced on it, and became the first breed champion Sheltie to pass a VST test. I don’t think my car touched the pavement all the way home from Albuquerque.


A very out-of-coat Dustin poses with the judges and tracklayer after his successful VST test, November 19, 2017


FIELD TRACKING AND THE TDX TEST


Dustin had already flunked one TDX test shortly before he passed the VST test.

In the spring of 2016, he unceremoniously failed four more TDX tests. Did I mention he doesn’t like Stuff in his face? At one test, he went the wrong direction at the start, in another he overshot the first turn on a hot day and headed into the shade. In one he overshot the second turn, and in yet another he got blown by the wind into a gully that went the wrong direction. I began to despair of his ever becoming a Champion Tracker. My tracking partner was no longer available, and we laid off tracking for the early summer when the weeds were bad and the rattlesnakes were out.

In August, I decided that if my eleven year old Sheltie was ever to earn his TDX, we’d have to get back in training. August is hot, and I would have to lay my own tracks for him. Unwilling to subject either of us to 90° to 100° temperatures, I decided to try overnight tracks. I went out at 4 to 5 pm and laid the track, and at 9 am the next day, Dustin ran the track. To my surprise, he handled the added age with no problem. I used a short line and abundant treats to get him to work close to my footsteps. Again, to my surprise, it worked. He still wasn’t crazy about Stuff in his face, but he could handle the vegetation at the one state park with no rattlesnakes.

By mid-September he was doing some excellent tracking.

I still had to wean him off the treats, I still had to re-train myself to work him at the end of a 20 foot line, but I began to think again that he could pass his TDX test. Then as the weather got cooler, I tracked him at a different park. He didn’t like the vegetation (More Stuff in his face!) and he got stickers in his paw, that neither I nor the tracklayer had seen when she laid the track. I wondered if my favorite boy dog was simply getting too old for the work I was asking of him.

Still, I decided to enter him in two tests towards the end of the year. The first was the November Idaho Capital City Kennel Club, where he had done a decent job the preceding spring—after he overshot the second turn. The second was the local test in December, unfortunately at the same park where he was getting stickers in his feet, but where he had tracked well the previous winter.

Dustin turned twelve just two and a half weeks before the ICCKC test.

It was a two day trip to Boise, but the weather was good. Test day was cool and overcast, always a good omen. Dustin drew the last track of the day. By the time we drove out to our track, two of the TD dogs had earned their titles, but none of the previous four TDX dogs had passed. The grass in our tracking field was very short with bare spots.

One observer commented that it was too bad about the bare spots,
but another informed her that my dog liked the bare spots.

I took Dustin to the start flag, and immediately I knew he had a chance. He was working well and I could read his track indications. He tracked through the first two turns with some casting, but no particular problem. Then he located the first article with no problem. I mean, how could he miss a red bandana on the nearly bare ground? Around the first obstacle—some uprights for zip-lines, with tall weeds around the base. When he ran into the small but long irrigation ditch, he cast both ways, then turned right and followed the edge of the tall surrounding weeds. At the end of the ditch and weeds, he checked both directions, then went up and around yet another ditch and into the short grass area beyond it. He cast around a bit, couldn’t locate the track, then lifted his head and caught the scent back where he had come from. So back we went, and he turned right to the next article—a baby bib—on the next leg of the track. He continued along that short grass leg to what was actually the last turn, but got caught up by scent in those darn weeds along the ditch again. So he plowed into the weeds and got stuck at the bottom of one dry ditch. I lifted him out then had to help him across another dry ditch. After casting around in the tall grass for a while, he decided the track wasn’t there, and worked his way back to where he had gone into the grass. He started down the last leg of the track, but some yards down it, he decided he’d had enough of tracking for the day. I had to offer him water and an article to sniff several times, before he very reluctantly moved down the field. I had almost given up hope when he caught the scent of the final glove and headed for it enthusiastically. He sat emphatically at the glove and looked back at me with a self-satisfied expression. I rushed up and hugged him. My twelve year old Sheltie had finally done it. My bouncing baby boy was a Champion Tracker, the first breed champion Sheltie to earn that title, and only the seventh Sheltie overall.

My bouncing baby boy was a Champion Tracker. . . .

Our trip home was a happy one, in spite of some windy wet weather along the way. Dustin got bed privileges at the motel of course—I had to shove him over to get in bed myself. I notified the secretary for the December test that Dustin had passed and I withdrew his entry. Within hours, I was drafted to lay tracks for that test. That’s how it happens in a small tracking community. I didn’t mind, because I had major bragging rights. Dustin and I had succeeded at our final big competition together.

We couldn't wipe the grins off our faces, as we photographed new TDX and Champion Tracker Dustin. Idaho Capital City Kennel Club November 20, 2016.


 

Other Dustin Albums:

Read More About Dustin:

  • Sheltie Pacesetter, Spring 2010, in The Sheltie At Work (Champion VCX article)
  • Dog News, August 13, 2010, in Tough Competition (Versatility Shelties article)

 

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